Presenteeism is fuelled by high workloads, financial concerns and a lack of job security.

New research demonstrates the continued problem of presenteeism in the UK, as almost nine in ten employees (89%) say they have come into work while unwell according to Canada Life Group Insurance. This is down by 4 percentage points from last year but represents over 27 million people, suggesting more needs to be done to counter fears of recrimination for calling in sick.

The research also found that presenteeism is fuelled by high workloads, financial concerns and a lack of job security. Almost a third of UK workers said their workload is too great for them to take time off for illness (32%), 21 percent worry about the financial implications of calling in sick and 13 percent do not feel secure enough in their job to take time off. More than one in ten (13%) said colleagues and senior members of staff make them feel guilty for taking time off when unwell.

Overall, those employees surveyed took an average of 3.0 days off sick in 2014. This is down from the 4.4 days reported in 2013 and is much lower than the 5.6 days reported pre-recession in 2007.

Employees fear being perceived as lazy, but working while ill reduces productivity

Employees are worried about being perceived as being lazy (13%), inconsiderate (10%) and weak (10%) if they took time off for a short-term illness.

However, putting on a brave face and coming into work when ill can do more harm than good. Two thirds (66%) say they performed worse at work as a result of feeling ill, which includes 10 percent who reported they performed significantly worse.

In addition, coming into work while unwell runs the risk of spreading illness across an organisation: almost three quarters (71%) of employees say they have become ill after another colleague came into work when unwell, with 14 percent saying they experience this at work all the time.

A third of employees would not take time off for a stomach virus

Alarmingly, 36 percent would not take time off if they had a stomach virus, even when experiencing symptoms of sickness and diarrhoea. Almost half (49%) would not take time off if they had the flu, despite being a serious illness that can leave sufferers bed-bound. Around one in eight (13%) employees say they would have to be hospitalised and have no other choice before calling in sick.

However, this is not as high as the 80 percent who would not take time off for stress-related illnesses, indicating physical illnesses are taken much more seriously than mental ones.

Lack of employer support damages workplace morale

For those who do become ill, only a small number receive workplace support for sickness absence. Such services can play an invaluable role in supporting workers and helping them get back to work. Just eight percent of employees have an Employee Assistance Programme, while nine percent have a helpline or external organisation they can contact if they become ill for an extended period of time. Almost half (45%) are unaware if their organisation offers any sickness absence support and 16 percent say their employer definitely does not provide anything.

Employers would do well to communicate greater levels of support in this area to boost employee morale. Currently only nine percent of employees believe their health and wellbeing is the top priority of the organisation, but 28 percent say a rehabilitation programme (including advice in the event of a long-term illness) would provide them with peace of mind.

“Presenteeism shows no sign of letting up in the UK workforce, suggesting employers need to do more to promote health and wellbeing in their organisation,” says Paul Avis, marketing director of Canada Life Group. “Not only would this be beneficial to the individual employees’ welfare, it would also benefit the business as a whole in the long run by improving productivity and preventing the spread of illness among co-workers.

“Particularly concerning is the seemingly low value employees place on mental illnesses, with far too many willing to come into work while suffering from this. Recent research found the number of employees seeking help for depression has risen by 40% in the last year, highlighting the need for employers and staff alike to recognise the importance of treating mental illness as an important issue.

“At a time when recruitment and retention is increasingly crucial, ensuring employees feel valued and secure is a vital element to this. Employers should have a clear sickness absence system in place to assure employees they will not be penalised or face any recrimination for taking time off when they are genuinely unwell.”